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Addressing the Obesity Problem

The rates of obesity are continuing to increase at an alarming rate. Recent public health studies report a rate approaching 40% of adults are obese, which is nearly double the rate in 2018. Currently about 70% of Americans adults are either overweight or obese.

While being overweight has a stinging sociocultural stigma and bias associated with it that cause considerable psychological distress, there are also serious and detrimental medical and financial consequences of carrying excess weight. The medical damage and financial costs from being overweight result not only from the uncomfortable stress and wear on the body but also from the weight related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, degenerative osteoarthritis, gall bladder disease, sleep apnea, and several forms of cancer. Unfortunately, while these medical conditions are borne by the individual the costs of these chronic destructive diseases are put upon our overburdened health care system and the taxpayer who must pay for it. These costs are unsustainable for a struggling health care system and are ultimately paid for by the public.

There are many factors that can play a role in promoting an individual’s weight gain, such as socioeconomic factors, cultural and community pressures, financial and access inequalities, food insecurity, psychological trauma, and genetic factors. However, clinical studies and treating experience show that an individual’s eating and drinking behaviors are more often the likely cause for obesity the dire medical consequences that it fosters. Yet these behaviors are, to a large degree, under the individual’s control and can be changed. Meaningful and safe weight loss, done in a responsible manner, may not be quick and easy, but it is possible. Even a 5%-10% weight loss can produce significant and lasting medical benefits that will result in less chronic disease, reduced medical expenses and fewer destructive medical disease complications, but overweight individuals must be willing and committed to make the necessary changes for weight loss to occur.

However, it is time to stop victimizing overweight individuals by blaming and faulting them entirely for their weight gain. A more productive and helpful approach is to empower and enable them to take control of their eating and drinking behaviors. Smart programs that support the individual and their community through education, guidance, supportive tools, and access to affordable healthy foods are needed, shaming cannot solve this problem of personal behavior. For example, dealing with the escalating costs of managing obesity’s complications could be helped by “nudging”, a form of friendly persuasion, individuals towards adopting healthier lifestyle behaviors through economic incentives that reward healthier choices while taxing unhealthy choices. Individuals will still have the opportunity to select their behaviors and choices, but they would have to pay more for some and be rewarded for other choices. Economic studies have documented that being chronically overweight or obese causes more financial hardships to poorer households than to more affluent ones. The goal of preventing and reducing obesity is not to take away choice or blame the individual, but to give and promote health and freedom from chronic disease. These actions could help to make Americans healthier, save huge amounts of health care dollars and help America to be a more competitive nation.

Some supportive tools that can help the weight loss process by reducing appetite, decreasing hunger, curbing carbohydrate cravings, and reducing the stomach’s hunger pangs can be found at Peter Vash, M.D.,MPH.

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